Monday, September 10, 2007

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
by Gregory Maguire

Let me deliver the punchline so I can get to the outgassing: for the most part, I found this book a slog and wouldn't recommend it to anyone other than rabid fans of anything Oz, or someone who's interested in the genre of gay fiction.

The oddest thing about Wicked is that it's compelling yet boring. It's like listening to someone at a party who just slaughters jokes, but the jokes themselves are so good, you're willing to reconstruct them in your head so they're funny again. This novel is full of concepts that are intriguing, but the execution thereof ... well let's just say the "execution" hews closer to the "killing" definition rather than "realization".

The style defied judicious skimming, too. When I tried to skim, I often had to go back to dig out a detail in the middle of a tedious paragraph in order for things to make sense. I was impressed and infuriated at the same time.

The biggest flaw was that Maguire has no sense of magic. Every time magical events occurred, they were anticlimactic. Often they felt like afterthoughts, or grudging inclusions due to the fact they were in the original stories, or movie.

For example, a character other than the witch, Nor, discovers that the witch's broom actually flies. She goes for a quick, surprise ride, and when the witch sees her, she takes the broom back and goes for a ride herself. (The scene contains a cute dirty joke about how the broom at first tries to distract her by rubbing itself lustily against her crotch.) Now, she's been carrying the broom around for a while (which is never explained), but someone else figures out it's magic? Please.

Wicked (the novel) is really a sociopolitical fable about being gay. It ain't easy being green, especially when it's subtext for being gay. Also, there are animals and Animals, being those who don't talk and those who do. During the course of the novel, the Wizard has the Animals hunted down and put back out to pasture, taking them from their jobs and homes, etc. There are so many levels of gay subtext, it's like an Escher piece on gay subtext.

That is not a put-down, but more of a complaint about a limitation. You can only work that angle so many ways, and then it gets tedious. A story has to be about more than one thing to be whole. Let me give you another example, though it's beloved (even by me): the famous Catcher in the Rye. It's a one-trick pony, too. The style elevates it above its limitations, but really it’s a few hundred pages of "this one time, at band camp" as told by a teenager having a nervous breakdown. Great read because of the style, but the story is numbing.

Beyond that, the tone of Wicked is bitter. It reminded me of an author I loathe (though I don't loathe Maguire - I think he has a talent of a sort), Margaret Atwood, where everything in her fictional worlds is adulterated, ugly, dying, cancerous, and fetid. She has a "cookbook" (how to write), where she offers the concept that everything is about death. Gosh, ya just wanna have her along on a long road trip, doncha?

My final complaint is that after a slog through hundreds of pages of Elphaba's backstory, the last part of the novel is almost completely detached from it, and Elphaba's sole motivation is getting her sister's freakin' shoes back! Well, you may say, that's that happened in the Wizard of Oz, too, Mr. High and Mighty. Fine! I'd shoot back, but many OTHER things were changed in this re-imagining of the story, so couldn't the finale been about a bit more than SHOE SHOPPING!

To me, the most intriguing thing about Wicked and the original Baum Oz novels is how they both spawned superior works. The original movie is much better than the novel(s) - sorry Oz fans, it just is - and the musical Wicked is head and shoulders above its source material, according to my wife (and from what I can tell of the plot summary of the play).

As most avid readers know, the phenom of the derivative being better is exceedingly rare. The only other one I can think of is Bladerunner, which is so much better than the source novel, I'm tempted to make the sick joke that Philip K. Dick's death might have been from embarrassment. (See? That's just wrong.)

Anyway, I wonder why lightening struck twice when it comes to The Wizard of Oz and Wicked, though?

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